Beyond the Devil’s elbow

Entering the wilds of the East coast

Hardinge Road of my youth was a tangle of bitumen-covered tanks and pipes, and the fishbones of old trawlers pulled up on the shingles from the sea. It was old Port Ahuriri, the colonial heart of Napier. With the ‘cackle cackle’ of overhead gulls riding the flotsam of worker’s cottages spread along the high water mark. And the Crown and Union as the two ventricles at the heart of this salt-crusted community. We never drank there, we hadn’t yet earned that right. 

All a sepia memory lost to the allure of progress and gentrification. I cross the old causeway and bridge for the southern spit of Westshore. This was the site of the first public house in Napier, the McKain Villers Accommodation House (1851). Robina and James McKain moved to the spit as formative colonial families in the area. Soon to be followed others north at Petane. As go all arrival families.

I’m now drawing a long shadow in dawn’s early light. Crossing the northern trail and the Keteketerau sediments of the old inner harbour towards the hill of Roro o Kuri towards Petane. Prior to the great earthquake of 1931 families sailed across these shallows from Napier for Sunday picnics at that foot of that hill, when it was one of a scattering of small water-bound inner islands of the Ahuriri lagoon. 

Beyond Petane domain I cross the narrow saddle at Bay View into the Esk valley adjacent the cemetery of Douglas Mary McKain. James’ mother, matriarch, and my maternal great, great, great grandmother.  She was Glaswegian and a widow when she emigrated with her four sons and a daughter to New Zealand. She arrived at Port Nicholson in 1841 where she worked as a nurse for some 20 years before moving north to the Esk Valley to be amongst family. She died on the 3rd of April 1873. 

Darky’s spur

I’ve come this way before, climbing above the narrows of the Esk river. Chasing it upstream to its headland at Taraponui. Waipunga Road is a decent grind, where seal soon turns to shingle into the relentless East Coast hill country all the way to Darky’s Spur. The great river plains are behind me, I’m now entering the wild of Te Tairāwhiti. 

Now a good 350 metres above Lake Tūtira, and another 200 above the sea, the view from there is remarkable. Looking north and east into a clear high sky over the ramble towards Mahia, Hikurangi and my destination. Whatever mystery lies behind the name, Darky’s is a magnificent ride only equalled by its rapid descent that cuts hard, like a well-weathered wrinkle into the face of the Spur. Down, down, down I fall into the Waikoau valley to rejoin my old companion, the Gisborne line. Then on, navigating a sheep muster to reach the old general store at Tutira. 

I pull in as the proprietor and fry cook stub out their cigi’s, give me the once over and step back inside. “What’ll you have?” I gave my order and then waited, leaning back against the cool of the chiller door. Their conversation was audible above the overhead din of the deep-fryer fan. I waited. ‘Some story about Rob, his dogs, his ute, and him chasing down a butch pig somewhere north of Te Kooti’. They cackled in laughter. I waited.

My eventual feed of Charleez chicken and chips was worth that wait. 

Away beyond the Devil’s elbow

Tutira is just beyond the Devil’s elbow. A notorious bend of State Highway Two signalling the entrance to the east. This landscape is a tablecloth of gathered creases, all ridges and valleys, but it’s deceiving. Just when you think it eases, it doesn’t.

It was mid-afternoon. I hadn’t planned to ride much beyond Putarino, but had arrived early with ‘the minimals’ to push on. The road to get there proved easy, the road beyond… not so much. 

The endless ramble continued all the way to the viaduct that spans the mighty Mohaka. I cross the river terraces before climbing the peak of Taumatataua, reaching the summit just as the sun disappears beyond the Kaweka’s away in the west. It was already well after five. 

I stood there. Quiet, and seriously contemplating camping wild that night. “Fuck it”, I saddled up and committed to the descent. Chasing brake lights through the bends as the last of the days logging trucks made its way down into the Valley to Waihau beach. At last, I had rejoined the Gisborne line for the last 20 km trek across the plains to Wairoa.

I set camp in the dark that night. Exhausted and enveloped in the warmth of the Wairoa river shingles. My mind adrift in its eddies. I slept.

Leave a Reply